Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
Kumogakure: Vanished into the Clouds
(A prose poem proving that Rokugani love stories can have happy endings. Also that I am not even subtle about totally ripping off the Tale of Genji. Yes, including the titles and some of the character names.)
I. Hashihime: Lady at the Bridge
Their feet, wrapped in taboo leathers and furs for protection,
rolled down the side of the Mountain. Some may say
the Mountain itself is as unpalatable as those skins and furs,
those strange folk with their rolling gait,
but some would say it quietly, far from the knowledgeable gazes and keen ears
the Mountain instills in its people.
Their feet roll not unsteadily, not out of uncertain step,
but rather the opposite; they roll as round as the edges
of rocks they trod upon, they roll as a cold clear river rolls
from its frigid spring. They follow the contour of the Mountain
as any who seek its heights must do; for of course all things that climb
The feet bear folk as unusual as their wrappings,
clad in simple kimono and hakama, hair tied back with cloth strips.
They do not speak much, but they see much. In pairs they walk,
a youth with a seasoned scholar, the latter imparting knowledge with
a word, a gesture, a look, mountain soil filtered through dry fingers,
and the student watching with eyes as open as a courtier’s ears.
The Agasha, ever seeking another piece to their puzzle,
descend the mountain to the grasses on this early spring day,
for they know that, despite what the Oldest of the Mountain teaches them,
all the puzzle pieces cannot be gathered among hardy pines,
summer snows, quiet frigid pools, distant winds, deep within one’s soul.
The Kami flung the answers to Agasha’s Riddle across the Empire,
and these riddle-solvers will trust their feet to take them to the answers.
The last of the ridge pines finally give way to grasses and gentler hills.
Spring breezes fresh with the promise of growth but still bearing snow’s bite
tousle the rolling fields of the Unicorn lands that begin at the Mountain’s base. One of the students goes ahead somewhat, squinting into the distance,
her cleverly-wrought golden spectacles not giving much aid against the late morning sun. She is not the first to see the outriders;
she is rarely the first to see anything;
but her sensei follows her gaze and frowns deeply.
“Umino, is it them you are seeking?
Why else would you cast your gaze so far to the west?”
The girl blushes deeply; sadly, she is not one the Kami saw fit
to make more becoming with red to the cheeks.
“Sensei Oborozukiyo, I see nothing still
save for the grasses that caress this side of the Mountain.
Please, enlighten this ignorant one
with the life and growth that must surely be eluding me.”
Oborozukiyo lifts her silver-haired head once more,
her sun-stained face bathed in the swift winds,
and watches the approach of the riders.
“The Unicorn must sense the grasses here even better than we,”
she murmurs, “for here come no less than two score of them
astride those fine steeds of theirs, no less.
Be courteous and quiet,” she advises the others,
“and do not trod on their precious horse-feed until invited to do so.”
Murmuring agreement along with the rest, Umino still rolls
her feet even further, rolls with the rhythm of the grass now,
comes as close to the sea of green blades as the Mountain will allow.
Who can say what pulls things gently down the mountain?
Who knows where the bridge between the raised earth and the gentle plains really begins and ends?
Umino knows only she was seeking the pieces to that puzzle,
and instead the group of riders, like lavender blossoms in the blustering green,
drew her closer. She only ever wanted to see
II. Niyou Miya: The Perfumed Prince
The plains have tied a braided rope of grass
to the heart of every Unicorn. It tugs at them, guides them,
leads them ever to the open spaces of the world,
pulls them all at once so they are forced to keep their ranks close
and their horizons broad.
The children of the plains are never taught culture
in the same language. Their laughter, food, housing, clothing
cannot remain constant, for change is the only culture these plainsfolk know.
Even within their home Empire, they have claimed the broadest plains,
the widest skies, the most unstructured of grounds
that can still be considered within borders: civilized, safe
for clans who have no grass with its teeth in their hearts,
for those who do not feel crushed by a ceiling.
On these fields, the royal purple garments
…cut perhaps a hair or twenty from the customary style…
blossom in their season, the season of wind, of riding;
they fill the green seas of grass with colour
as soon as Spring’s first wind rises.
One comes riding, one with the grass in his heart,
son of a shireikan, his rank apparent in his lazy half-smile,
his immaculate clothing, his herb-scented hair
blowing in careful braids on the wind.
“Ah, Koremitsu,” he calls, his voice a cultivated tenor,
“have we ridden so far as to battle the Mountain this day?”
“If anyone rode to conquer the Mountain, Young-Il,”
Koremitsu replies, pulling his horse up next to his friend,
“it would surely be you, the very personification of bold Spring.”
“Old friend, that to me speaks of a challenge to
awaken the Ki-Rin within our steeds. Shall we do as our foremother Shinjo
and ride beyond the known realms of the Unicorn?”
Koremitsu rolls his eyes, saying “I and my Ki-Rin
would much rather ride to a known stream, Shinjo-san.”
They continued to put all their focus into their banter;
their words screened them
from seeing the fate and beauty they were approaching,
the forces of destiny pooling at the foot of the Mountain.
It is ever thus with young men, those in the full rush of youth,
who seek to find their place in the order of men
by dueling words and weapons.
Yet for all their witticisms tossed into the face of the wind,
they do not notice the red thread of fate
lashed surely to their wrists
even as they jest about it.
Who can say what tie—to wrists, heart, or head—
causes a young man to raise his eyes to the woman on the Mountain
and feel his heart squeezed by fate’s fingers?
Who can say how a wanderer feels
when he finally finds what he has been seeking?
Young-Il knows only that a small form in rough dress
causes his wrists to draw his horse up at the Mountain’s feet.
Perhaps this is where
the braided leash has been pulling all along. He only knows he cannot go
III. Agemaki: Trefoil Knots
When two are tied together in love, it is truly a bond of three.
The love itself, the being that is created
is a presence, a force that drives decisions,
a hovering observer sharing the lovers’ every moment.
It was such with Umino and Young-Il from the start.
What is there to say about how they fell in love? The love
was already there, waiting for them. Fate
was already drawing them towards one another
like hands preparing to clasp in thanks,
In the face of such a third being,
what weight do the words of mortals carry?
It is a fortunate thing that those accompanying
Umino and Young-Il
were aware of the existence of
The companions’ words then carried them to one another,
to speak of a day-long hunting trip,
fascinating and frowned-upon.
The noise of their conversation was saved for the tide
of companions that moved behind the two lovers,
the roar of the wave behind the silent foam.
Young-Il and Umino
walked alone with the Presence, not getting to know each other,
but rather confirming why they were drawn together.
The wave behind them spoke for them
of marriage, of Young-Il’s noble father
and how he would see the good of this marriage for his son.
They spoke of Umino, how she had no parents,
no offerings, but good Oborozukiyo bowed deeply
and promised the goodwill of all the Agasha towards the Shinjo
if they would but respect one of Agasha’s greatest mysteries,
that of the Presence.
These words are the happy sounds that filled the vast fields
that early Spring day. Who can know what
Agasha Umino and Shinjo Young-Il
spoke of? Who can say
what the Presence whispered in their ears?
All their companions know is that
when one encounters that strangest of things,
that love at first glimpse,
one nurtures it, respects it, pushes it ever
IV: Miyuki: Imperial Outing
It came to be that even a storybook love
would not relieve Young-Il of his duty.
Even this far away from the center of the Empire,
the slaughter of a Son of Heaven
…and the blooming Daughter that pushed her tender petals
through the ancient stone of tradition…
was still heard, grieved, celebrated.
The Empress needs her Champion,
and Young-Il was selected to wield the mysteries of the Clan
and fight for the honour.
There is a moment, the duelists say,
where one can achieve freedom
from one’s mind. In doing so, one has nothing left
This is not the tale of Young-Il
bravely drawing that blade brimming with breezes
and finding his purpose in defeating
the slight Kakita standing across from him.
This is when Young-Il did all that was required
and only that. He was polite, strong, drew the blade well,
but as he drew, nothing mattered
save for the eyes squinting as hard as they could
behind their spectacles. His purpose
was to find those eyes, to remind himself
that it was enough that he responded to the call of his Empire.
It would bring all of the honour to their hearth
his father required.
The fear in those eyes, the possibility
of a duty too great to shirk,
of his bride being the Empire and not her,
of the snapping of that red thread
with a beautiful, stormy blade:
those things gave him purpose
and his blade of roiling winds
was struck aside by the lightning-quick steel
of Kakita Kanihime.
Who can say what Young-Il was really feeling
as his sword and armband settled to the ground?
Who truly knows how unfeigned was the joy of his Clan and the Agasha
at the festivities that night?
All those that were watching know is the small smile on his face,
the sincere bow, the resheathing of the sword after his loss
suggested a victory of purpose. Some are truly relieved
when their course is charted, and they simply find a way to go no
V: Minori: Rites
in glasses filled for nothing
For three days it burns,
this scented flame, luxury
reserved for blessings.
Some distance away
at that bridge where earth meets sky,
the bridge of fate, wondrous place
of fortune and love.
shrouded on the Mountain’s flank;
green, gold, elated.
The shugenja speaks,
presiding over the rites
that turn love to law.
Their hands clasp; ‘tis done.
They ride away, resplendent,
return to the flame.
All can say, who’ve seen
the unfurling of the bloom
of love, their feelings.
All can know, who’ve felt
unbridled joy while dancing
‘round the flames, their thoughts.
Even if there are
no words, their story goes on
Epilogue: Yume no Ukihashi: Floating Bridge of Dreams
“an Arm, with a Hand in every Fate.”
“I travel here with my love, so I travel here alone.”
“the one with the eyes of darkness, of stars, ever watches.”
“he is a guide. He cannot tell us where we go from here.”
“you go where Fate leads. Do you follow?”
“ever so. The red thread—”
“—is subject to Fate. See that you heed it.”
Back to fictions